Spanish paint found on Egyptian mummy

By way of the Discovery Channel, I’ve got some cool Egyptology news to share with you. The Brooklyn MuseumPortrait of Demetrios is planning to extensively analyze its collections of Egyptian mummies in the coming weeks. One of the first mummies they analyzed, known as Demetrios, died sometime around 94-100 AD, and is already revealing some interesting results. To your right is a reconstruction of a portrait of Demetrios. He was excavated from a Roman cemetery in Hawara, Egypt in 1911.

In the photo below, you see Demetrios being prepped for the analysis, X-ray fluorescence. X-ray fluorescence exposes objects and materials to short wavelength beams of energy that excite atoms and cause them to release radiation. This radiation has energy characteristics of the atoms within the object, so the technique helps researchers to determine what chemicals might be present.

Demetrios’ body being prepped for X-Ray Fluorescence

After the rays bombarded Demetrios, the red decorated linens you see in the photo that wrap him, matched the chemical composition of lead from Spain’s Rio Tinto region, known for over 5,000 years of silver mining. Museum conservator Lisa Bruno comments,

Spain either exported raw lead, a by product of silver, to be made into Spanish paint before making its way to Egypt…Imported materials would have been hard to come by and therefore probably expensive, so Bruno and her team now speculate that Demetrios was a very wealthy individual. “Red shroud mummies,” of which Demetrios is an example, are exceptionally rare, with only 10 known to exist in the entire world.

Only males received the full red treatment, with females having just touches of red on their more multicolored linen wrappings.

Red shroud mummies have portraits painted on wood that were placed over the wrapped bodies. Although Demetrios additionally had the number “89” painted on the wood, a CT scan revealed he likely was in his 50’s at the time of his death. Bruno said his portrait does indeed look like that of a distinguished gent in his 50’s.

Lawrence Boxt, director of cardiac MRI’s and CT scans at New York’s North Shore University Hospital, supports the theory that Demetrios was wealthy because he “died a quiet, natural death” with little wear and tear on his bones and body, which otherwise would have suggested a typical laborer’s life.

Boxt even thinks slaves or other workers might have carried around Demetrios, due to the relatively pristine and unused nature of his bones.

This study is pretty fascinating. Using high tech methods, archaeologists reveal not only how widespread trade was throughout the Roman empire, but also give a little bit of insight to how the world worked 2,000 years ago.

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